The Yiddish Policemen’s Union Paperback – 3 Mar 2008
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‘His almost ecstatically smart and sassy new novel…Chabon is a spectacular writer…[and] is a language magician, turning everything into something else just for the delight of playing tricks with words…Chabon's ornate prose makes [Raymond] Chandler's fruity observations of the world look quite plain…He writes like a dream and has you laughing out loud, applauding the fun he has with language and the way he takes the task of a writer and runs delighted rings around it.’ Guardian
'He is the most wonderful vaudeville performer.' Philip Hensher, in the Spectator ‘Books of the Year’
‘Michael Chabon’s brilliant new novel starts with a bang…It hums with humour. It buzzes with gags…Superb images also team in this long novel: the accumulated reading experience is one of admiration, close to awe, at the vigour of Chabon’s imagination…a hilarious, antic whirl of a novel.’ Sunday Times
‘A divine gumshoe romp.’ Sam Leith, in the Spectator ‘Books of the Year’
'Chabon has written such a dazzling, individual, hyperconfident novel that it's tough to work out who wouldn't have fun reading it. If the thriller plot doesn't get you (and it's easily the equal of any detective story in the past five years) then the exuberant style and the sackfuls of great jokes will… Whichever way you cut it, “The Yiddish Policemen's Union” is pure narrative pleasure, high-class stuff from cover to cover. Only a shmendrik would pass it up.' Independent on Sunday
'What really impresses about Chabon's eighth book is the author's ability to take a far-off, unfamiliar landscape and make it so densely, vividly imagined that 50 pages in the reader feels like they've know it forever.' Daily Mail
'A marvellous, masterly reinvigoration of the detective genre.' Daily Telegraph
From the Publisher
*Starred Review* Like Haruki Murakami in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End
of the World (1991), Chabon plays with the conventions of the Chandlerian
private-eye novel, but that's only one ingredient in an epic-scale
alternate-history saga of Jewish life since World War II. The premise draws
on an obscure historical fact: FDR once proposed that Alaska, not Israel,
become the homeland for Jews after the war. In Chabon's telling, that's
exactly what happened, except, inevitably, it hasn't gone as planned: the
U.S. government now has enacted a policy that will evict all Jews without
proper papers from Sitka, the center of Jewish Alaska. In the midst of this
nightmare, browbeaten police detective Meyer Landsman investigates the
murder of a heroin-addicted chess prodigy who happens to be the disgraced
son of Sitka's most powerful rabbi. No one wants this case solved, from
Landsman's boss (his ex-wife, Bina) to the FBI, but our Yiddish Marlowe
keeps digging, uncovering apocalypse in the making. Chabon manipulates his
bulging plot masterfully, but what makes the novel soar is its humor and
humanity. Even without grasping all the Yiddish wordplay that seasons the
delectable prose, readers will fall headlong into the alternate universe of
Chabon's Sitka, where black humor is a kind of antifreeze necessary to
support life. And when Meyer, in the end, must "weigh the fates of the
Jews, of the Arabs, of the whole unblessed and homeless planet" against a
promise made to a grieving mother, it's clear that this parallel world
smells a lot like home. Chabon's Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay ran
the book-award table in 2000, and this one just may be its equal. Bill Ott
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top customer reviews
Put like this, it makes it sound like I didn't like this book. Nothing could be further from the truth. The plot is definitely genre-fiction and the political stance will undoubtedly anger some people. But the man writes incredible, wonderful, beautiful prose. I don't think I have ever read a book where I stopped so often to re-read and admire a line which had me gasping with admiration or chuckling in amusement. And reading these lines, it struck me that many other writers could have come up with images of similar beauty but they would have overstated them, given them too heavy a treatment. There is a line somewhere where the snow is falling and he says something like "The footprints in the snow outside were as shallow as an angel's". A lesser writer would have spelled it out -the snow is falling so the footprints have been filled with fresh snow, making them look as if a figure with no weight or substance has left its imprint. Chabon suggests this but leaves the reader to fill in the gaps.
There are a lot of Yiddish words in it, but then much of that will be familiar to anyone who has read Leo Rosten, and it is all easily available on Google. As for other aspects of the cultural background, maybe it does make it hard going for goyim like myself but this is why I read books - to find out about things I don't know about!
So, perhaps not the greatest book I've ever read, but certainly a strong candidate for the best written and very entertaining.
Its central character, Meyer Landsman, an alcoholic police detective with a particular liking for slivivitz, apologises to his ex-wife for spoiling her Saturday night, her retort is that her Saturday night is like a microwave burrito, `It's hardly possible to ruin something that was so bad to begin with'.
There are many characters, almost exclusively male, in the story that begins on the first page. A body is discovered in a dingy hotel, its signs in Esperanto, where Landsman, who has `the brains of a convict, the balls of a fireman, and the eyesight of a housebreaker', has lived since his wife left him.
The corpse, Emmanuel Lasker, had just injected drugs and was playing chess. The single shot killing suggests a professional killing. The interrupted chess game reminds Landsman of his father, a Holocaust survivor, who forced his son the play the game with the result that he now hates it. However, the pieces are set out in a puzzling way as if it holds a clue. Chess is, of course, the only game allowed on the Sabbath in Sitka.
For a non-Jew, this book is hard going as almost every character is Jewish, the dialogue is supposedly in Yiddish and, whilst some of the words are not to difficult to work out, many are not and no explanations are given. Swearing is in `American'.
When the author is on song he is masterly, Sitka at night is `an orange smear, a compound of fog and the light of sodium-vapour lamps. It has the translucence of onions cooked in chicken fat'. References to the food, sounds and smells of Sitka abound, `The Filipino-style Chinese donut, or shtekeleh, is the great contribution of the District of Sitka to the food lovers of the world'. A motorbike revs up like "the flatulence of a burst balloon streaking across the living room and knocking over a lamp." Jewish girls "sing Negro spirituals with Yiddish lyrics that paraphrase Lincoln and Marx." The Jews in Sitka are referred to as `the Frozen Chosen'.
Landsman's police partner is his cousin, Berko Shemets, Tlingit Indian and Jew in equal amounts, brought up in the tribe but now regarding himself as Jewish. Before long the dead man is found to be the Tzaddik Ha-Dor, the man born into every generation who is able to become the Messiah, if that generation is worthy. Stories are told of miracles wrought by the victim who ended up an addict, making a living from chess. How and why is revealed in this story. Bit by bit, Landsman and Berko find their families drawn into the investigation.
I found that Chabon was too carried away by his metaphor-enriched language, piling one on top of one another so often that I began to feel a need for oxygen. The best writers know how to write, but also when to stop.
What is very well done is the ways in which the postwar world has changed, Berlin was attacked by nuclear missiles in in 1946, there has been war in Cuba and Orson Welles's film adaptation of Conrad's Heart of Darkness are all obliquely referenced.
As neither a Jew nor a chessplayer, although I understood the reference in the corpse's name, there was much in this book that passed me by and I suspect that I will not be alone in this. By the final page, I felt rather like the guest at a party, knowing no one else, who stands listening to the never-ending jokes and reminiscences of the other guests.
This is a clever novel but not one that will remain in this reader's head.
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Most recent customer reviews
I abandoned the book 1/4 in to it. Perhaps it got better later - who knows.
very enjoyable it looks set to stay on my list for read again